Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and its cooks have done the culinary version of borrowing a cup of sugar from the neighbours. Claire Dodd guides you through the store cupboard basics
Cambodia's turbulent history is mapped in its cook books. Communism in the 1970's led to wide scale poverty and prompted cooks to get creative. If it moved, it was edible. And so many traditional dishes include rather interesting ingredients such as insects. Deep fried tarantula or stuffed frog anyone?
More palatable, and certainly easier to recreate, are staple dishes such as curries, soups and stir frys. All include a complex combination of delicate flavours and punchy spiciness. But balance is key. A typical meal includes three or four separate dishes that together achieve a careful balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours.
Spice up your life
Turmeric, lemongrass, garlic and ginger are absolute staples for this style of cooking. Kaffir lime leaves are also popular and are used in the same way as bay leaves to flavour broths, or ground for use in pastes. You can pick up dried kaffir lime leaves from most major supermarkets. Galangal, a root from the ginger family can be bought fresh or dried from specialist food shops or online.
Also stock up on palm sugar and honey to add sweetness, curry powder and red chillies to give dishes a bit of a kick, though you’re not aiming for the full-on spiciness of Thai dishes. And don't forget the fish sauce. Plenty of fish sauce. You'll need it.
Crazy in the coconut
If you're not a fan of the old coconut, then look away now. You’ve entered food hell. Just about every dish has coconut snuck into it somewhere, whether it’s coconut milk, cream or desiccated.
As with one of Cambodia’s most popular dishes, fish amok, coconut cream is often used as the base for a curry.
If you want to be a purist, you'll need to get hold of some prahok. This fish paste is usually made from crushed, salted and fermented mudfish, and is used heavily throughout Cambodia as a condiment or seasoning, though it was originally used to preserve fresh fish. Its cheesy smell can be a deterrent for even the most adventurous foodie but if you’re feeling brave, you can pick up Thai and Chinese versions from ethnic food shops, though the Thai style is the closest to what you'll find in the kitchens across Cambodia.
The best chefs on TV and over 6,000 recipes